By Beh Lih Yi
Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women's rights campaigners in Japan have expressed disappointment about the appointment of only two women in the new government's 21-member cabinet, saying they expect little progress to tackle wide gender disparities.
Yoshihide Suga, who took office as prime minister on Wednesday following the resignation of Shinzo Abe, has made no reference to women's rights so far, and activists said his record in Abe's government did not auger well for change.
"I have no hopes to see the new government breaking glass ceilings for women," Hiroko Goto, a professor at Japan's Chiba University who teaches gender and law, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Thursday.
"Suga will continue at the same pace going forward. He wants to keep the status quo, he has no intention to change — not only on women's issues but also on other issues such as economics," said Goto, who has studied Abe's "womenomics" policy.
Abe pledged to boost the role of women in the economy and politics under a push dubbed "womenomics," promising to create a "Japan in which women shine" as part of broader efforts to cope with the country's low birth rate and ageing population.
But his administration failed to meet its target of raising the percentage of women in leadership posts to 30% this year.
Goto said Japanese women were still struggling with deep-rooted patriarchy that ranges from wage gaps with men to archaic laws that inadequately protect them from violence.
Suga, 71, who was the chief cabinet secretary in Abe's government, has pledged to stick with his former boss's economic growth policies while pushing reforms including deregulation, digitalization, and cutting down on bureaucracy.
About half of the new cabinet members served in Abe's administration, and their average age is 60. The two women with cabinet jobs are Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa.
"We're disappointed with the composition of the cabinet," said Kazuko Ito, a lawyer and the secretary general at Human Rights Now, a Tokyo-based advocacy group that has supported the country's #MeToo movement.
She cited Japan's poor record on gender parity and urged the new government to take bold actions to close the gap.
Japan's global ranking on gender parity has fallen to 121st out of 153 countries in a World Economic Forum report for 2020 — the largest gap among advanced countries and down from 101st when Abe took office for a rare second term in 2012.
Japanese women spend more than three times as many hours as men doing unpaid work such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for the elderly or children, according to United Nations data.
"The government needs to redouble its efforts to bridge the gap. We're trying to be optimistic but we haven't heard any holistic policies on women's rights and gender equality so we're a bit sceptical," Ito said.
Others urged Suga to address gender inequality as next year's postponed Olympic Games put the country in the global limelight.
"His personal record doesn't show he will prioritize this area but if he wants to create a legacy — given the attention on Japan with the Olympics — he should push for change in gender equality," said Kanae Doi, the Japan director of campaign group Human Rights Watch.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)